Court: NSA Illegally Collected Phone Data

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 07, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The majority of Americans may be shocked and angered to learn the National Security Agency was collecting and storing data on many of their phone calls. And a federal appeals court agreed, saying the NSA's program "would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans."

The ruling comes weeks before parts of the PATRIOT Act are set to expire and both parties in Congress are wary of the NSA's domestic spying capabilities.

Sticking to the Section

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act authorizes the government to collect information "relevant to an authorized investigation." The NSA used this authorization to gather metadata (number dialed, time of call, length of call, etc.) on all telephone communications originating or ending in the U.S., whether or not the caller was the target of an investigation. The NSA's argument was a variation on "a needle in a haystack": essentially, the government needs the entire haystack to find the needle.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals wasn't buying it, saying, "Such an expansive concept of relevance is unprecedented and unwarranted." Therefore, the NSA was violating the PATRIOT Act with its bulk data collections. Because it ruled the program illegal, the court did not decide if the program was constitutional.

The court also declined to order the collection to stop, deciding instead to let the current legislative debate about Section 215 determine the program's fate. The case could end up in the Supreme Court if Congress reauthorizes the current version of the PATRIOT Act.

Data Collection Debate

Whether the bulk collection of phone data is legally justified has been a matter of debate since the PATRIOT Act was passed in 2001, and only intensified following Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA's domestic spying. In response, a proposed bipartisan bill called the USA FREEDOM Act would end bulk collection. The House Judiciary Committee passed another bill last week that would end require the government to obtain phone records on a case-by-case basis.

The push and pull between national security and privacy rights continues, and this ruling appears to be one for those who'd rather not have the NSA secretly tracking their every phone conversation.

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